Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Happy New Year!



We would like to extend our best New Years wishes to all of our friends and hope that 2009 is fruitful and happy!

We're on vacation in Belgrade so we haven't managed to post anything substantial in the past week or so and will resume our normal shenanigans after the 10th!

Best!

Friday, December 19, 2008

Deep Culture: Ivo Furman: Marx on a Plane


So It has been almost three weeks since my last posting. I've been bogged down by a multitude of academic tasks including attending and chairing and academic conference and submitting my term projects. It has been a long and stressful three weeks but I have now returned back to my hometown of Istanbul for X-mass vacation.

When I was flying into Istanbul on a red-eye flight last Tuesday, I was thinking about the experience of the airplane. Flying could possibly be one of the most disciplinary and exhausting tasks an individual undertakes in daily life. We are systematically organized into performing amazingly mundane tasks such as lining up, taking off our shoes and endure sharing a tiny personal space with other individuals. I personally despise the experience despite the fact that I fly approximately 10 to 14 times a year. I will not divulge into a Foucauldian analysis of the airport institution as this is not the object of this blog. What I will do however is to examine the concept of airplane food.

Airplane food is a disgusting experience. Breakfasts are often the worst as catering companies go buck wild trying to recreate western breakfast staples such as scrambled eggs or muffins. Usually the results of such endeavours are disastrous. Flying with Turkish Airlines, the breakfast consisted of scrambled eggs and ham. The eggs were a wobbling mess of yellow that resembled something particularly unpleasant (vomit) while the ham could make vegetarians out of the most carnivorous of people. The best of all was that there was an offer of "baklava" with the meal. Who the hell would eat baklava on a plane flight? Eat two and you'll get enough of a sugar rush to perform summersaults on the aisle. My question is who really designs these meals? We already pay so much to fly and yet somehow, since I was a kid, I remember hating the food on offer.

Ryanair seems to have it the best, as it offers no food. To be frank with you, although I really hate all the silly jingles and announcements Ryanair does to promote their goods on the flight, I'd say that paying less and bringing your food is better than eating theirs. Will there be a solution to this problem in aviation anytime soon? Somehow the aviation authorities have complete rights over our bodies as soon as we enter the airport, we are how to behave, how to sit and how to wait. We complain about all this but somehow no one seems to bring up the issue that the authorities also dictate what we eat. Let's examine this problem a little further.

The quality of food that we eat is in essence defined by how much we want to spend on an airplane seat. Theoretically, the more you spend the better service you get. Money is fact a determinant of the level of service you get. Therefore there has to be visible indicators of quality difference. Asides from the size of the seats where else is a better place to show difference in quality than in offered food? So there it is, we are doomed to always have bad food in the economy class as long as business and elite class exists. If not, there would be too little of a difference for customers to make the choice of paying almost twice as much for a seat. We say Marxism is dead but here you go, when you take an airplane to be a self sufficient "society", a Marxian analysis reveals that that the structure of "airplane society" reinforces your miserable existence on economy. So next, the time you fly remember that you have nothing to lose except your chains...

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Boutari, Xinomavro, and the Great White North


Today I had the opportunity to visit one of the great Greek Wineries in the DOC region of Naoussa. Boutari Winery produces wine from seven significant wine producing regions and features both noble varieties (syrah, cabernet, merlot) as well as little known indigenous grapes. Vasilis Georgiou, one of the vintners at Boutari, was gracious enough to give me a private tour and lead me through a tasting of a number of the recent vintages. The goal of the tasting was to familiarize myself better with a range of Greek grape varieties but principally to explore a specific grape with great potential: Xinomavro.

Cold Steel

I first became interested in Xinomavro wines after having a bottle at the restaurant Pylos in New York this summer. A 2003, which is purported to be an excellent year, was bright, exciting and provided an insight in the power of these little known grapes. Much like Pinot Noir in terms of body and color, the wine shines when produced by refined and knowledgeable individuals. Red berry notes dominate the wine but also typical are "green" notes as well - grass and mint, which is evocative of Barolo.

Boutari is one of Greece's oldest modern wineries and has become very well known for its white Moschofilero from the region of Mantinia in Peloponnisos. This white wine is widely available at many larger wine shops in the United States. Apart from this very well known wine (900,000 liters are produced per year) in Greece, at least, the Xinomavro wines from Naoussa are the best known and most well-renowned.

Raising the bar.

A grey and misty day, my cousin and I set out on the hour-long ride to the winery, situated north of Thessaloniki, in his convertible, which was arguably not the best car for the job. No matter, as we arrived safely around 1:30 and were more than ready to taste a few wines. Vasilis met us in the large and beautiful tasting room and led us on a tour of the facilities. The facilities were large and impressive and handle the bottling of the majority of the Boutari wines. What was clearly evident during the tour was not only the meticulous, loving attention paid to the wine but also the attention to innovation - just installed was a french oak fermentation tank solely for experimenting with new blends and cutting edge viticultural methods. All of the wines are currently fermented in stainless steel fermentation tanks, which lend a clean, crisp characteristic to their wines but lack some of the characteristics of wines fermented in oak vats.

If I could have only photographed the aroma!

The wine vaults were vast, with approximately 3,000 barrels of primarily French oak (but also some American as well) and smelled heavenly. Boutari's selection of their vintage wines is also vast - the most extensive in Greece and one is able to purchase across a large range of the classic Xinomavro vintages at a very reasonable cost (1990, an excellent vintage, was 30 euros per bottle).

Want to see some wine disappear?

After the tour came time for the tasting. We tasted young wines - ranging from 2003 to the most recent 2008 vintages - from five Boutari's wineries situated around Greece. The best wines were round, full, and delicious. The flagship, workhorse red, Naoussa Boutari 2007 had great potential but didn't have time to open up. Vasilis said that 2007 will prove to be an excellent vintage; I think it will come around as time passes and I will be looking forward to tasting the Grand Reserve when it comes out. The Grand Reserve 2003 was excellent. The additional time spent in the barrel and bottle softened the tanins and balanced the acidity which are characteristically high with Xinomavro. Again the wine needed decanting to open up but it was delicious (I bought a case). The last wine in the tasting was a horse of a different color. Skalani, from Crete, was a big, juicy wine that really shined. 50% Syrah and 50% local grape Kotsifali, it was familiar yet mysterious. It wasn't overly jammy and would have done well next to any red meat and really shown with the typical red fruit notes of Syrah but with a finish that was interesting, dominated by undertones of chocolate and oak. This wine won top honors at the Thessaloniki wine expo this past year.

All said and done, it was an excellent day at the winery. I had a wonderful opportunity to taste a wide selection of Boutari wines, curated by Vasilis and his team. We left the winery, cases in hand, for a late lunch in the town of Naoussa, which had been completely enveloped by clouds, fog, mist, and a fine drizzle. In the restaurant's warm womb we washed down baked fava beans, cooked feta cheese, and fresh grilled bread with lashings of delicious, fresh house-made Xinomavro. With drove back to Thessaloniki extremely contented with our experience: mission accomplished. 

Feel free to read up on Greek red grape varieties HERE

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Recipe... for disaster

Today on Bloomberg was the last article in a series on world famine.  Since I brought up corn in a prior post, I figured that I would mention it again...  The statistics in this article are baffling and frightening - the amount of corn that could feed 91 people for a year will power cars in Houston for 21 seconds.  If this doesn't make you mad, I don't know what will...

Super Club

On the plane over to Greece I read a funny article in the Financial Times, which I thought I'd share.  One of their food columnists, who frequently travels for business, measures the quality of hotels by how well they make a club sandwich.  A little closed minded, perhaps, but it's actually a pretty funny piece (typical English).

Read the article HERE: Come on Hotels, Use Your Loaf

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Gyros makes the world go 'round


I love Gyros. I love sultry, salty, succulent meat turning on a spit. Shave it and wrap it in fluffy, delicious pita. I love it with tzatziki or spicy feta spread.  I love it with tomatoes, french fries, and onions.  But what I don't love is the fake unpalatable wrapped trash passed onto unwitting American consumers. This is not to say that sometimes it can't be tasty - I've definitely filled up on the American version at the Gyros House in St. Louis. Papa Cristo's in LA has also done it's job from time to time. But generally it needs to be noted that what Greek-American restaurateurs serve would never pass in Greece.

Before I launch into any tirades concerning fast food of the Eastern Mediterranean, it must be made clear that I will focus exclusively on the Greek version of gyros.  Many permutations exist throughout the Mediterranean world, primarily as Döner and as Schawarma.  The modern inculcation first appeared in the 19th century, in the Turkish city of Bursa and quickly spread to other parts of Turkey.  Greeks expelled from Turkey in the 1960's began opening up döner shops in their new country, and quickly popularized döner, which was rebranded as gyros (Greek for "turning").  With fast-food culture taking over the Western world, Greek expatriates living in the United States returned and established a fast-food tailored to Mediterranean tastes.

The American gyros can be looked at as a metaphor for Greek diaspora culture - or it can be further extrapolated as a prime example for any diaspora. Clearly Greek entrepreneurs meant well when they popularized gyros but they had to tailor it to not only American tastes but also to American preconceptions and stereotypes with regards to Greek culture. Certainly in the 1960s the stereotypes of a pastoral Greece, whose landscape was dominated by shepherds and their flocks of sheep and goats, wasn't too far-fetched. What stuck in the imaginations of Americans were images of Greece, which were filtered through the lens of the few prominent films which caught the attention of the general public - Never on a Sunday and Zorba the Greek, serve as two prime examples. I will not discuss these films in depth but they both establish and corroborate the stereotype of the macho mustachioed Greek man, drunk, poor, dancing, and happy.

In all of this developed this fascination with Lamb. According to the average American, Greeks eat lamb for every meal. While I love lamb, until relatively recently, the cuisine of Greece was purely seasonal. You could not buy strawberries in November. You could buy lamb frozen but that simply would not do. Lamb really is only served a couple of times a year - served primarily at Eastern when it is roasted whole on a spit, preceded by an intense soup made with the offal of said lamb.

These misconceptions are played up by Greek-American restauranteurs who, at this point are run by 2nd, 3rd, and 4th generations who have been fully assimilated into American culture, and are perpetuated in the name of sales and expectations of the American clientele. Certainly most emphasize quality of ingredients but very few emphasize refinement of cooking. Often it is an older family member who cooks the traditional dishes and recipes, which are passed on to line cooks who are often not Greek. But essentially this is comfort food - from their home to yours and is not intended to be a refined cuisine.

Of course this article is not intended to belittle the hard work of Greek-American restaurateurs who have worked hard, chasing the American dream. The true testament to these entrepreneurs are the legions of Greek-Americans who have excelled in academia, medicine, law, business, etc. The only question that remains is - if this group of people can excel in so many high-profile fields, why can't they just serve a proper Greek gyro?

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Come All Ye Faithful



On Saturday I'm headed to Greece. As you may have heard, the entire country has erupted into riots over the shooting of a 15 year old boy by Greek police; the rioting that ensued thereafter was the culmination of dissatisfaction with the Greek economy and the quality of life under the current governmental administration. Obviously the situation has deteriorated far more precipitously than anyone had anticipated - hence the Christmas tree decked out in its holiday finest in front of the Greek Parliament building in Athens.

Ivo wanted my cousin, George to live-blog as the various events unfolded while he and his university compatriots took to the streets in protest but, unfortunately he wasn't so keen on the idea. Had we been in Greece this week instead of next I certainly would have taken the opportunity to at least provide some better insight on what exactly is going on at the street level beyond the handful of anarchists throwing molotov cocktails.

This said, I wanted you dear readers to know that for the next 30 days this blog will be heavily influenced on experiences abroad. I hope to bring you insight on Greek wine from the region of Naoussa, an introduction to the wonderful world of Ouzo, a variety of traditional Greek and Turkish recipes, and an expose on some of the best Gyros that one can find in the world. Dear readers, I hope to take you on a virtual vacation. To experience with me the sounds, sights, and smells (well not really) of travel in foreign destinations. Meanwhile I'll try to dodge the flying stones and puddles of burning gasoline.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

-OH Bond Holidaze

I've been gorging my mind with a semester's worth of physics and chemistry over the last couple of weeks in preparation for my final exams. Yes, I am currently a student - a super super super senior, to be exact; but for all university purposes I'm just a lowly freshman. With some luck and some elbow grease, I'll do well in all my pre-requisites and get into medical school! In my previous life, I was employed and living in New York, in wine more specifically. In said past life, a time-honored tradition called for a sober month of January. The real hard-boiled red-nosed guys would all swear off alcohol for a month in order to detox after the holiday season of bingeing (and presumably to see if they actually could cut alcohol out of their lives for 30 days).

I have been dry for nearly two weeks, which, I realize, is actually something that I haven't done in quite some time. This certainly has been a good time to cut out drinking since I need all of my faculties to concentrate - one can say that I'm going dry in order to prepare FOR the holidays. I stumbled upon the following article in the NY Times by a man who hasn't had a drop in 16 years. Despite all of the time that has gone by, he still struggles, but only during each Christmas season.

It's a thoughtful essay on why we are driven to drink and the challenges of sobriety. I'm sure he had to let some steam off somehow. As for me, I'm looking forward to sitting by the fire with a belgian Christmas ale as soon as my exams are done.

Follow the link for the article: It's the Holidays. How About Just One?

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

We Recommend: Highland Spirits

Ascend to the throne of whisky.

The breadth and variety of single malt whiskies can be intimidating for anyone who is just starting to explore the world of serious spirits. Since many fine single malts are produced in small batches and aged accordingly, drinking whisky is an expensive habit.  With such enormous regional variation, one must taste an enormous quantity in order to become a true connoisseur.  While the writers of this blog are not experts, we certainly recommend Islay whiskies, which are characteristically peaty.  These will appeal for those who prefer smokey flavors over sweeter ones.  

In today's NY Times, wine and spirits editor Eric Asimov offers his remarks on a tasting 21 single malts from the Speyside region of the Scottish Highlands.  How he was able to remember anything after this tasting is beyond me.  Since I'm abstaining from drinking anything alcoholic until December 12th, I thought that I would at least live vicariously through Asimov and post the link to the results of his tasting here.

Please click the link below for the full article:

The trick, of course, is finding them!  

Happy hunting and Cheers!

Max

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Guest Recipe: Soul Rolls: Cookin' with Coolio

I'm not entirely sure how many of you out there are familiar with Coolio's YouTube cooking show but I watched it again recently and I could NOT stop laughing. Most of you recall Coolio as the lampooned mid 90's rapper whose hit single "Gangsta's Paradise" was featured in the Michelle Pfeiffer film "Dangerous Minds." The music video is HI-larious and stars Michelle Pfeiffer reprising her role in the movie. Watch it. Now.

Coolio's music career failed to gel and now he's apparently trying to start a catering business - HA. Biggie and TuPac roll in their graves, I'm sure.

In any case, check out the following episode of Cookin' with Coolio - you won't regret it!
(There are a few profanities thrown around FYI)


Max

Monday, December 1, 2008

Cemetery Tourism

So it appears that I'm definitely not crazy to spend time thinking of modern cemeteries, especially as tourist destinations. Sunday's New York Times featured an article about visiting the various interesting cemetaries located in the Borroughs of NYC. The article points out some of the big names burried there: Miles Davis, Lewis Comfort Tiffany, James Cash Penney, and Duke Ellington are some of the names mentioned. I think, all-in-all the two cemetaries I mentioned in my earlier post have a more impressive group of people interned. Even though we don't get sweeping Manhattan views they are certainly worth exploring.

If you've done everything there is to do in NY (or at least feel like you have) then the article should be of interest as it highlights some nice side-trips. Check it out:
http://travel.nytimes.com/2008/11/30/travel/30weekend.html

Sunday, November 30, 2008

Column: Deep Culture: Sado-Masochistic Tendencies: Ivo Furman


With the gaze of a cavalryman leading a charge, the gentleman walks up to the entrance of the curry house and holds the door for the lady behind him. Together they quickly stride towards the first person of authority they meet, the waiter, and ask for a table for two. The waiter makes a sweeping gesture towards one of the available tables in the establishment. With quick, staccato looks to one another, the couple decide to accept the offer and sit down. With the arrival of the menus, the process is complete for the experience about happen, by the end of which the couple will leave the restaurant having bonded over the experience of spice.

I've always been curious about why people like spicy food. As a matter of fact, I wonder why I like to order spicy food. It, after all, creates a rather painful sensory experience that runs quite contrary to what we actually desire at a restaurant. Often, people eat away from home for reasons of sociability and pleasure; either as displays of power or affection. Yet we still order spicy food. And we all enjoy it much more when in the company of others, especially if the other decides to partake in this act of pain. In my opinion, spice adds a particular dimension of bonding to cuisine. Like ancient warriors that would mutilate themselves in bonding displays of sexuality and power, we do the same thing in the restaurant. The desire to collectively experience pain brings us closer together. Although pain in itself is a subjective experience, the collective act unifies the experience as a shared act of consciousness. So as the couple bluster over their curries, what they are doing in fact is taking part a ritual of bonding through displays of power and sexuality.

How are these two key terms of power and sexuality unconsciously realized in the ritual? The desire to give and receive pain, the power to allow the other to experience pain in a controlled environment is surely the underlying theme of the ritual. By allowing one to experience pain, you empower the other; with the imposed hierarchy collapsing, the power relation is dynamic and fluid at the dinner table.

Now take a step back and reread the last few sentences. They sound more like a description out of an S&M manual rather than the description of a night out at the restaurant. How is it that a marginalized sexual practice has the same denotations as the scene described? Society seeks to marginalize particular sexual impulses; by labelling particular practices as dangerous, subversive and immoral it seeks to isolate and localize these experiences. Yet these desires exist within the repressed psychology of the individual. Therefore through localization, particular institutions and practices cater to the satisfaction of such impulses in individuals. The sexual impulse is "safely" played out within the context of the middle class restaurant. Needless to note is how the impulse is commoditised in an economic exchange. We have to pay to satisfy our power and curry cravings.

Once again I have run out of space, but what I tried to unpack today was how the ordinary or the accepted usually contains elements that quite marginal. What is normalized is usually done so to hide away the subversive. However, both always exist in conjecture with each other as in fact both are just signs to represent a social act.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Recipe: Chestnut Gelato

Finally, it's chestnut season.  This means that it's also time to get creative with this simple and amazing nut.  Hot chestnuts are one of the great universal pleasures harkening the arrival of winter but unfortunately the once omnipresent roasting chestnut have fallen out of vogue.  For those of you who never have had a chestnut they are best when eaten warm, having been fresh roasted or boiled.  Peeling off the thick, brown skin reveals an off-white tender, nutty, sweet flesh that has a subtle and amazing flavor.  Chestnuts can be added to any number of dishes, such as ravioli filling, for example.  

Today, though, I decided to make chestnut gelato with the Missouri chestnuts my Mom brought home.  

The recipe is very simple, provided you have an ice-cream maker.  I suppose one could hand-churn the ice-cream but it's a tiring process - this would work as old-fashioned freezer-frozen ice cream as well.  This recipe is adapted from Gelato: Italian Ice Creams, Sorbetti and Granite by Pamela Sheldon Johns.

You will need:
2 cups whole milk
1/2 vanilla pod (I used Madagascar Vanilla from Penzey's Spices)
2/3 cups sugar
1 cup chestnut purée
4 egg yolks
1 cup heavy cream

Boil chestnuts in slightly salty water until they are tender (cut one in half to test how soft it is - shouldn't yield too much resistance when you bite into it).  Heat milk and cream until it just starts to froth, turn down heat, scrape the vanilla seeds into the milk and add the bean pod into the milk - make sure to stir the whole time to avoid burning the bottom of the pot/ scalding the milk.  Let the milk stand for 30 minutes.  

Cream the yolks and sugar.  Combine chestnuts with the wet ingredients and mix until smooth and fully integrated.  Reheat the milk, remove the vanilla bean pods, and SLOWLY combine the milk with the yolk-sugar-chestnut mixture.  Careful not to add it too quickly or you will cook the egg!  Once combined you're pretty much ready to go.  Chill the ice cream thoroughly and proceed making it in your ice-cream-making contraption!

I tasted mine finally today, after "forgetting" to bring it to thanksgiving dinner and it was truly great!

Keep tuned for the next ice cream recipe where I'll be playing around with Star Anise!

Max


Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Column: Deep Culture: Whisky Spiritual: Ivo Furman

Globalize THIS
Amongst things I find spiritually uplifting (like listening to Otis Taylor or hearing the muezzin at 5am) I'd say that single malts hold particular importance to me.

Meaning the "water of life" in Gaelic, "uisge-beatha" is a drink that is produced from a variety of grains including, barley, rye and corn. Of concern to us in this article is Scottish whisky, which is made out of a distilled mixture of barley and water. Quite like wine, the taste of single malt whisky depends on the terroir, or location, in which it was distilled. There are four main regions in Scotland, each with a particular style: Speyside, Highland, Islay and Lowlands. As a general rule of thumb, Islay single malts usually have a "peatier" smoky taste to them while Speyside is known for smooth, clean tastes. While the Highlands and the Lowlands both are more geographical definitions rather than particular styles, the Island subregion of Highland whisky is known for its salty "sea" taste.

So enough of my cocktail party trivia; why is it that I find whisky to be spiritual? To begin with, whisky is one of the few drinks that capture the essence of geographical area, every sip conveys the rugged and harsh Scottish homeland. It is honest, unlike most other hard liquors that attempt to standardize the drinking experience (look at the claims of rum, vodka & gin in providing a 'pure experience'), scotch brings along the 'emotional baggage' of its origins. It is a rural personna, proud of its origins and displays this in every turn and sip. I've always liked things with personality, attitude and I'd say that scotch does both with swagger and panache.

Turning our gaze on the global economy, I'd say that the current trends would be of localization and generalization. This is the same with food and alcohol. As international demand for certain products increase, the producers often have to standardize the experience of the product. This often leads a brand creating a concept for the entire market of products. For example, in Turkey, people will often say "Bacardi" while refering to rum products. This is a double edged sword, as it creates associations with brands and not products. This in turn standardizes consumer expectations of these particular products.

Taking a look at all the major alcohol markets will confirm my observations; vodka becomes "Smirnoff", gin becomes "Gordons" and rum becomes "Bacardi". When put togather, I find it strange that all three almost connote the same values of sophistication, hedonism and wealth. Yet it is strange that all these drinks were traditionally considered working class at the turn of the century. It is the case of the noveau riche trying to hide his wretched origins in a cosmopolitan environment.
Major source of Scotland's spirit exports.

On the other hand, certain markets have had an "inward" turn of localization. Whisky is certainly the forerunner of this trend. Until the late 1980s, whisky was under the monopoly of blended scotches such as Johnny Walker, JB and Chivas Regal. Such whiskies blend single malts from various regions to create a uniform tasting experience. With the advent of globalization, peripheral distilleries in Scotland (just look up Talisker distillery on the web and you'll understand what I mean) began finding markets for their own localized style of scotch previously isolated from the rest of the world. It is no great suprise that the market share of blended scotch has been steadly declining with the rise of single malts. So hence the second trend of products offers a "local" experience, which is essentially devoid of the connotations present in global brands. The image of the farmer, the peasant speaking in his local dialect is the image conjured up in such products.

In conclusion, no, I do not feel like an anti-globalist revolutionary when sipping on some single malt. The rise of the single malts depends on globalization just as other brands do. However, what single malt whisky offers is a metaphor for a more positive attitude on globalization, where the local can be democratically introduced to the international populace.

As a final touch to our little conversation about the nature of whisky, I'd like to recommend two that I hold very dear to my heart. Next time you visit the bar, ask for a 10 year Laphroaig ("beautiful hollow by the broad bay") [15 year is also recommended for this very peaty whisky] or a Auchentoshan Three Wood ("the Christmas pudding of whiskies") and hold a toast for globalization and the wonderful people of Scotland. Cheers.

Ivo Furman

Sunday, November 16, 2008

From a Cemetery on a Hill

Cemeteries have always intrigued me. When I was a small child, my grandmother and I would visit the grave of my great grandmother, located in a small, overgrown patch of land near the Greek-Macedonian border. The hot dry summer grass swayed gently in the wind and on the way home we would pilfer figs from overhanging trees and enjoy their sweet. St. Louis definitely is not Greece, but those early experiences amongst gravestones and family plots spurred an appreciation for the solitude and peacefulness of cemeteries. I was always fascinated by the fact that I was standing on top of a buried body and I would often fantasize about the lives of the interned, looking at the dates of birth and death to try and read clues about how or why these people passed away. 

St. Louis' Calvary and Bellefontaine Cemeteries, located on the North Side, just west of the intersection of N. Kingshighway and W. Florissant, are both exceptional places as far as cemeteries are concerned; after all, nothing particularly exciting happens at cemeteries. A number of impressive heavyweights are interned here, including William Tecumseh Sherman, William Clark (of Lewis and Clark fame), Dred Scott, William S. Burroughs, Adolphus Busch, as well as the mausoleum of the infamous Lemp family. A veritable collection of who's who in St. Louis society.  

The Eternal View
The cemeteries, situated on a hill, command a sweeping view of heavy industry - the landscape below is dominated by warehouses and tractor trailers. St. Louis' wealthiest families are not interned adjacent to this industrial landscape but these cemeteries are also located among some of the most economically blighted neighborhoods I've ever visited. 

While one looks out over the vast landscape of trees, warehouses, electrical lines, and tractor trailers one notices something puzzling about the environment. HARK! What is the divine sweet smell that wafts through the air as one wanders about, admiring mausoleums and obelisks? It is not the sweet smell of death but rather the sweet smell of Wonder Bread and Hostess Twinkies!

At some point when I was a child, I was lucky enough to visit Interstate Bakeries Corporation factory and have been forever mesmerized by the incredible scents that emanate from the industrial complex. The whirring machinery and conveyors, which send loaves of perfect, factory-made white bread flying by at various stages of production, made an indelible impression on my 6 year old self. This was the equivalent of visiting Willie Wonka's Chocolate Factory if only he had chosen yeast and flour over high fructose corn syrup. The scents of these industrially produced baked goods are so strong that a stiff wind carries them miles away. Heaven!

This incongruity between landscapes is highlighted further by this synesthetic experience, which combines the visual with the olfactory. Bucolic rolling hills are ravaged by poverty and manufacturing.  River vistas have given way to industrial landscapes. And the smell of death is truly sweet here. The experience one can have at Calvary and Bellefontaine Cemeteries highlights and epitomizes one's life in St. Louis. Life here is never what it seems to be.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Essay: Modern Eating: Meredith Jones


Once upon a time, when we were little, the strawberries tasted like strawberries. Unfortunately, they were only available for about two months during the early to middle summer. Then, a strange thing occurred: strawberries were suddenly available year-round, but they weren’t strawberries anymore. The flesh was dense and gummy where once it was meatier and juicier; and while the deep red color of a ripe strawberry usually indicated that it was at its sweetest, all of these new, strange strawberries were bright red while none of them tasted like it.

In my neighborhood Whole Foods, the strawberry season is celebrated with the abundance of ripe, perfect, “real” berries from nearby Watsonville, which has the ideal hot growing climate for this fruit. After about eight weeks, they are gone, but replaced by fake strawberries for the rest of the year. This is a poor, poor substitute, suitable not even for baking, as the average recipe is intended for a completely different little beast than that Driscoll berry that arrives at every grocery store nationwide in large, plastic containers.

So what are we to do? In an increasing amount of places, the focus is not whether the food is organic, but whether it is local. We know this, because it was on the cover of Time magazine about two years ago. If the berries are local, one can assume that they taste better, they cost less to transport, and since everything is increasingly organic, they were probably organic to begin with. Now, I live in San Francisco, which is the perfect Slow Food culinary storm for three major reasons: one, it is one of the so-called “bi-coastal” cities, which means it takes its culinary scene ridiculously seriously; two, really good food grows year-round within a 200 mile radius; and three, San Francisco is renowned for its self-righteously “correct” attitudes about such things as politics, social progressivism, health, and the environment.

Thus, the foodie life here is never-ending. With the coming of every July, people get hopping excited about the arrival of squash blossoms (generally stuffed with ricotta and basil, flour battered, and deep fried) as if it were an annual coming of Christ. And every winter, Bay Area restaurants line up to worship the Great White Truffle, sacrificing just obscene amounts of money to truffle dinners complete with appropriately paired wines from Piemonte. It’s the same as with clothes, when every September, Vogue reminds us that it’s coat and sweater time again and we all get our proverbial panties in a twist about pumpkin-colored Lanvin jackets and rush off to the Gap to buy the knockoff.

I suppose there are worse things to treat as a fad than seasonal food. God knows that traditionally, food fads are a boon for the food industry but generally end up with absurd situations. Right now, people in El Paso are able to order salmon to put on top of their Caesar salad, a combination I will never understand. Meanwhile, we are completely out of wild salmon and have to harvest it, inject it with all kinds of dye and hormones just to supply the demand we so stupidly created in the first place. In the case of San Francisco, when squash blossom season is over, it’s over. Time to move on and look forward to the actual squashes, to be puréed and put into filled pastas, to be made into soups, to be brushed with olive oil and roasted and salted. And then when those are done in the middle of winter, it’s put a fork in it already, because they’re done. When seasonal food is in fashion, everyone is sure to quit the season’s big food at the appropriate time. No sense looking like you’re behind the times. Just as you wouldn’t wear woolen tights in May, or keep your Christmas tree up in February. It’s just…not done.

This summer I went out to dinner with my sisters in Saint Louis. We ordered a wild mushroom pastry, which turned out to be this completely insane construction of masses of puff pastry, ten inches high, towering above a strewing of various mushrooms, sage, and entirely too much cream. The poor sauce was almost separated by the time it got to the table, and who could blame it? Those mushrooms were trying to get out. They were speaking to us.

“Look, damn you,” they said, while choking in their sea of dairy lipids, “We are criminis, we are oysters, we are shitakes. We are all mass-cultivated mushrooms, so it’s totally inappropriate that whoever created this menu decided to call us ‘wild’. We don’t have the delicate flavor of wild mushrooms, but if we did, it would be even more of a sin to put us in so much butter and cream. And this sage is some mass-distributed dried crap. The cows who made this milk are from the Midwest, the mushrooms were grown indoors in some Central Valley Californian mushroom multiplex, and the pastry flour is 100% SYSCO brand, milled God-Knows-Where from God-Knows-What. This is the most geographically and seasonally confused bullshit ever!”
Poor mushrooms, but they demonstrate some of the more senseless acts of eating. While San Franciscans are indeed completely silly for their food seasons, they do have a point. (Just don’t tell them that, please. Some of us Midwesterners have to live here.)

Like Dr. Seuss’ Lorax, I’d like to take a minute to speak for the mushrooms. If it would just occur to every American that, hey, it’s f-ing February, therefore the turkey sandwich simply cannot have tomatoes and butter lettuces on it, then perhaps we’d be doing something about those looming ozone holes and all-time high obesity levels. Until then, gorge on, fellow citizens, gorge on.

Meredith Jones

[Editor's note: Meredith is a St. Louisan in exile. She lives, works, writes, and plays in San Francisco. While she may be gone her spirit remains. Every fifth glint of sunlight reflecting off of the arch is just Meredith winking at us.]

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

You can take the corn out of the cow but you can't take the corn out of the bourbon

I read an interesting article today about the dependence of fast food on corn and corn subsedies. As I don't have time to write anything of substance today, check it out:

http://blog.wired.com/wiredscience/2008/11/fast-food-anoth.html


While corn-dependence is pretty obvious, after all it's the US's #1 crop, I can't quite tell how much of this is fear-mongering. Of course, we can all do our part by refusing to purchase products that rely largely on corn (such as products sweetened with high fructose corn syrup and factory-farm raised meat). As far as meat is concerned, I could understand supplementing my cows' or chickens' diets with some corn-based feed since it helps them fatten up; however, a diet that is suited to the animal's physiognomy should always take precedent.

Oh, except in the case of foie gras. I think i can look the other way from time to time.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Column: Deep Culture: The Bourgeoisie of the Sea or Why I Don't Like Salmon: Ivo Furman

Amongst the plethora of titles for half written articles I've planned for this blog, "why I don't like salmon" struck me as a humorous antidote to spending half a day listening to a health care researcher talk about eroticism and death in hospices. Hence I've decided to stick with the title and deconstruct that jolly and wise creature - the salmon.

So why is it that I despise salmon? If tuna is the chicken of the sea world, then salmon must truly be the T-bone. That startling pink colour sparkling of sophistication combined with that clichéd, omnipresent truism of "and its good for you" makes salmon the most obnoxious personality of the sea world. It itself often tastes bland and often hangs out with the most boring clique of potatoes and boiled veg, but still manages to project an image of middle class sophistication and power.

I realize I'm generalizing and being overtly critical of this humble fish, but it so often strikes me that the people who often dislike anything related to fish will order salmon. Paradoxical as it sounds, salmon seems to hold a certain magical charm over their heads. Then what is the discreet charm of the salmon?

I'd say that the secret of the salmon lies in its presentation. Forget all that balderdash about health concerns and the taste. The categorical presentation of the salmon is what matters. Quite often, salmon is presented as the "steak" or a dry cured cut. Presented as such it often allows the consumer to eat without giving too much consideration to the life of the fish before it landed on your plate.

The fish, complete with the head and tails often make people queasy, much like the fifth quarter of livestock; it creates a dilemma of class. Offal, scales, bones are often projected to be the undesirable, the Other of food. Therefore the presence of these elements in a dish often "ruin" the fetishistic desires associated with the dish. Discarding these elements often turn an undesired dish into one that is palatable. The same works for salmon. The categorical presentation of the dish often allows for non-fish consumers to partake in the ritual of consuming fish. The physical recomposition of the fish to suit the taste of the consumer makes the dish desirable. It stops being a fish and becomes a phantasmagoria of candle lit bourgeoisie restaurants stinking of cologne and wine. Such is the power of consumerism as it shapes the reality within which an object exists and is realized.

Of course, the next question to ask is how is taste defined? Does the context really affect the way consumers like or dislike a product? But I've run out of space for today. So, I'd say let these questions be food for thought. Let salmon, much like the bourgeoisie be the effect and not the object of our philosophical meanderings. After all, this wondrous fish used to be revered as a symbol of wisdom in Scandinavian and Celtic societies.

Ivo Furman

Monday, November 10, 2008

Beyond the Bospherous: Serdar's Shrimp Surprise: Ivo Furman

While writing out an analysis on the British Gambling Prevalence Survey, I starting thinking about the dinner I made last night. I've decided to share with you the recipie that caused that dastardly act of procastrination. It's aptly called "Serdar's Shrimp Suprise"

He prefers lamb's intestines.

1 Large Sea Bass, scaled and gutted
200-250 gr of Shrimp
3-4 large cloves of Garlic
1/2 red chili
handful of fresh parsley
few slices of bread, preferably a bagette
butter
olive oil

Heat the oven to about 150 celsius on turbo heating (the program with a fan on it) [approx. 300 degrees F - convection setting]. Put the cleaned & scaled sea bass on a baking tray covered with aluminium foil. Drizzle oil into the insides of the Sea Bass. Dice the garlic and chili finely. Using half the chilli and garlic, stuff the inside of the sea bass. Take a handful of cleaned shrimp and use it to also stuff the sea bass. Once the inside of the sea bass is almost full put some parsley into the fish. Drizzle some olive oil and butter around the sea bass. Distribute the remaining garlic & chilli around the fish. Distribute remaining shrimp and parsley around the fish. Put the dish in the oven for about 10 mins. Then throw in the bread slices and keep in the oven for another 5 mins. Then take out of oven and enjoy.

Ivo Furman

Cupcakes Out. Salad In.

Cupcakes are out, according to today's New York Times.

While whoopie pies have made cupcakes obsolete, as Liza Shore wrote in her great essay, according to 12 people in New York, they have become obsolete for entirely different reasons. School children across the country are apparently being dissuaded from bringing in unhealthy foods for their classmates to enjoy. One would assume that our right to sell baked goods to fund the 6th grade Halloween dance would be upheld by our great constitution but it looks like someone needs to call the ACLU.

It's like Double Stuf Oreos, but more like a bake sale.

Luckily, no one is raining on my parade since these spectacles are dead to me for three reasons:
1. I'm 25.
2. When I went to public high school, "bake sales" were pre-packaged messes, mere masquerades of Nana's recipe for fudge brownies (or Mandel Bread).
3. I was walking down 72nd street in NY one day and at 5th Ave. students from a tony private school were selling cookies to raise money for some kind of exotic vacation to the Maldives or the zoo or something. The cookies looked very good and i already had 3 in my mouth when I was told that I now owed the 12 year old kid with braces five dollars! Five dollars?!?! I'm pretty sure that cookies and brownies at bake sales when I was growing up cost 50 cents!

But this fascist elimination of the bake sale is ridiculous. What's next? Turnips and rutabagas? Bulgur and wheat germ? When are kids going to splurge a little bit? Can't they stuff their faces twice a year with semi-sweet chocolate, butter, cream, eggs, bleached flour, and, if they're lucky, polysorbate 60. If bake sales were not dead to me, I would not hesitate to make this into a political issue. Cupcakes may be dead but as long as we preheat the oven to 400 degrees and bake at 325 for 40 minutes I think we'll make it.

Sunday, November 9, 2008

And Now For Something Different: Part 2


Once again, I have been successful in perfectly making another 19th century recipe from the same suite of recipes as my last post. This recipe for a main dinner course should sate even the most finicky eater. From ages 2 to 99 this is the cornerstone of any healthy dinner!

I include it in its entirety including the introduction:

"Our readers will be interested in the following communications from our valued and learned contributor, Professor Bosh, whose labours in the fields of Culinary and Botanical science, are so well known to the world. The first three Articles richly merit to be added to the Domestic cookery of every family; those which follow, claim the attention of all Botanists, and we are happy to be able through Dr. Bosh's kindness to present our readers with illustrations of his discoveries. All the new flowers are found in the valley of Verrikwier, near the lake of Oddgrow, and on the summit of the hill Orfeltugg.

[SECOND OF] THREE RECEIPTS FOR DOMESTIC COOKERY

To Make Crumbobblious Cutlets

Procure some strips of beef, and having cut them into the smallest possible slices, proceed to cut them still smaller, eight or perhaps nine times.
When the whole is thus minced, brush it up hastily with a new clothes-brush, and stir round rapidly and capriciously with a salt-spoon or soup-ladle.
Place the whole in a saucepan, and remove it to a sunny place, - say the roof of the house if free from sparrows or other birds, - and leave it there for a week.
At the end of that time add a little lavender, some oil of almonds, and a few herring-bones; and then cover the whole with 4 gallons of clarified crumbobblious sauce, when it will be ready for use.
Cut it into the shape of ordinary cutlets, and serve up in a clean tablecloth or dinner-napkin."

Serves 4.

Monday, November 3, 2008

Family Dining

In my family there has been a long-standing tradition of repeating a little quip that my grandparents' housekeeper, Mabel Hall, used to say after a large meal. I tried googling the phrases but I wasn't able to come up with anything about the origin of this joke:

After sharing a large meal, two women are seated at a table, one of whom is hard of hearing. The younger woman pushes her empty plate away and says, "I ate sufficient!"
The deaf woman looks at across the table and asks, "You went fishing?"
"I ate plenty!" exclaims the younger woman.
The deaf woman replies, "What, you caught twenty?"
The younger woman looks at her companion and says, while shaking her head, "Poor soul!"
"What, you broke your pole!?" answers the deaf woman.

It's not so much funny as it highlights the quirky traditions that families and cultures develop in relationship to dining.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Essay: Cooking Silently: Liza Shore

By permission from cooking... silently (See original post: Whoopie Pies)


Ask anyone who even remotely knows me, and they'll tell you: for at least six months I have been proclaiming the whoopie pie as the next big dessert.

Why? Well, I'm glad you asked.

The whoopie pie has humble, but not very detailed, origins. A popular East coast treat, they are most commonly found in the heart of New England. They are often attributed to the Pennsylvania Dutch, but there is not much literature (perhaps this is my calling? Whoopie pie literature?) offering more than that. Regardless, I will forever have an image in my head of early American settlers walking across the landscape holding whoopie pies in waxed paper. There are plenty of urban legends circulating, too. Some say that whoopie pies were originally created to be easily transportable, individual cakes. Some say that they got their name from the exclamations of children who loved the treats. And I remember reading once that their popularity was somehow tied to the invention of Marshmallow Fluff. Wherever they were created and why, I'm just glad they're catching on.

The most wonderful thing to me about the whoopie pie is that it is completely antithetical to the most recent trend in baked goods, cupcakes. I think we're all starting to realize that it's actually very hard to find an exceptional cupcake. It's not hard to find one that LOOKS amazing, but usually the taste and/or texture disappoints. Cupcakes, plain and simple, try to win us over with their looks. Whoopie pies... don't.

Once I embarked on my whoopie pie crusade, it took quite a bit of tinkering to come up with what I felt was the perfect recipe. Part of my goal was to have a really good base recipe-- something that could be altered for flavor without changing texture or consistency. I wanted my dry ingredient proportions to stay essentially the same, so that only the wet ingredients would really vary. It wasn't all fun and games, landing on the perfect recipe. The chocolate batter alone went through several iterations. An attempt at a cinnamon cake resulted in something that tasted eerily similar to Cinnamon Toast Crunch. One crazed night, in an attempt to make perfectly uniform Whoopie Pies, I bought a plunger-gun that supposedly dispenses batter evenly. It didn't. These whoopie pies were turning out to be quite the endeavor, I tell you!

My other goal was to come up with a perfect, and shortening-free filling. For whatever reason, most whoopie pie recipes call for shortening in both the filling and in the cake. And, while I may tend to have shortening on hand in my freezer at all times, I know most people don't. It's an ingredient that people are scared of, hesitant to buy: "When else am I going to use that?" Lucky for us, there's butter!

So, regarding frosting, there are two options in my opinion. One is a simple butter/powdered sugar frosting. The key to this is creaming the butter forEVER, otherwise it will taste too thick. Cream it, cream it, and then cream it more, until it is super light and fluffy. Remember: when it comes to frosting, you really can't over-cream. Add a splash of vanilla and a pinch of salt with the powdered sugar. The other option is an italian meringue buttercream, a rich frosting lightened with egg whites. Recipes vary in quantities, and I haven't found one that I'm married to, but Martha Stewart and Dorie Greenspan will never lead you wrong.

And now, without further ado, my Whoopie Pie recipe-- fluffy, spongy, moist, and delicious slathered with frosting.

Chocolate Whoopie Pies

2 c flour
1/2 c cocoa powder
1 1/4 t baking soda
1 t salt
1 c buttermilk
1 t vanilla
1 stick butter
1 c brown sugar
1 egg


Whisk together dry ingredients. Add vanilla to buttermilk. Cream butter and sugar. Beat in egg. Alternate additions of wet and dry ingredients, beginning and ending with the dry. Bake at 350, until cakes spring back to the touch.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

And Now For Something Different: Part 1


Last night I made a terrific dish from the following 1870's recipe. It's sure-fire, finger-licking good for the whole family to enjoy!

I include it in its entirety including the introduction:

"Our readers will be interested in the following communications from our valued and learned contributor, Professor Bosh, whose labours in the fields of Culinary and Botanical science, are so well known to the world. The first three Articles richly merit to be added to the Domestic cookery of every family; those which follow, claim the attention of all Botanists, and we are happy to be able through Dr. Bosh's kindness to present our readers with illustrations of his discoveries. All the new flowers are found in the valley of Verrikwier, near the lake of Oddgrow, and on the summit of the hill Orfeltugg.

[ONE OF] THREE RECEIPTS FOR DOMESTIC COOKERY

To Make an Amblongus Pie

Take 4 pounds (say 4 1/2 pounds) of fresh Amblongusses, and put them into a small pipkin.
Cover them with water and boil them for 8 hours incessantly, after which add 2 pints of new milk, and proceed to boil for 4 hours more.
When you have ascertained that the Amblongusses are quite soft, take them out, and place them in a wide pan, taking care to shake them well previously.
Grate some nutmeg over the surface, and cover them carefully with powdered gingerbread, curry-powder, and a sufficient quantity of Cayenne papper.
Remove the pan into the next room, and place it on the floor. Bring it back again, and let it simmer for three-quarters of an hour. Shake the pan violently till all the Amblongusses have become of a pale purple colour.
Then, having prepared the paste, insert the whole carefully, adding at the same time a small pigeon, 2 slices of beef, 4 cauliflowers, and any number of oysters.
Watch patiently till the crust begins to rise, and add a pinch of salt from time to time.
Serve up in a clean dish, and throw the whole out of the window as fast as possible."

Serves 6.

Recession 1 Prosperity 0

Scanning the daily food digest "Grub Street," of New York Magazine, I was directed to a hilarious article in today's Chicago Tribune about the measures McDonald's is taking to increase their bottom line during these difficult times!  Several weeks ago, when the stock market really started to tank, investors were scrambling to determine what were safe investments.  Campbell's Soup and Walmart stocks jumped without too much surprise while McDonald's certainly has been doing comparatively well with an 11% jump in 3rd quarter profits.

How will McDonald's continue to boost its profits into the 4th quarter as most of us are downsizing to Church's Chicken?  Amidst the collapse of financial giants like Bear Sterns and Lehman Brothers we now have a new casualty... CHEESE!!!

That's right, McDonald's is re-arranging its 99 cent menu by removing one of the two slices of cheese from its double-cheeseburger and renaming this new Frankenstein the "McDouble."  The original double-cheeseburger can still be purchased for 20 cents more, but why would you want it when the McDouble is much much more healthy for you.  Times are tight folks, so think twice before you throw your next wine and cheese party (or charge your guests 20 cents for that extra Kraft Single).
(Read the original story here: http://www.chicagotribune.com/business/chi-mcdonalds-double-cheeseburger-oct28,0,4587964.story)

Monday, October 27, 2008

Column: Deep Culture: Ivo Furman

I often find introductions difficult to write, as they must introduce a body of work that has not been written let alone defined. When Max Holtz contacted me about the possibility of writing a column for his blog, I tried to conceptualize how my vocation and my hobby would coalesce. Being a PhD researcher in the UK, I felt that I had to combine my study of sociology with the themes Max wanted to explore. I hope to do this without being too pedantic as most academicians are when it comes to writing popular articles. So, I'll try writing jargon free and using personal references suitable for an international audience.

This column will essentially deal with the sociology of food, with how food is a medium of identification. When we talk about food as a conversation topic, it often serves an indicator of our lifestyles, ethnic background and even our political identity. In doing so, food is an individualized act of consumption in which every possible combination has a particular rationality and order. On the other hand, food is universal; it is the collective act of feeding for subsistence. I will be using the latter of the two definitions for this column. Among the topics will be covering will be issues such as how societies and cultures create the "myth" of cuisine around food, how ideas of nationalism categorize food and how the fetishization of cuisine leads to a transformation from necessity to commodity in urban environments. Lastly, I will also be exploring the relation between sexuality and cuisine in national cultures.

Next week, I will be writing a short article about coffee nationalism(s) in South Eastern Europe. In this area of the world, the same cup of coffee is either a Bosnian, Serbian, Croatian, Greek or Turkish coffee depending on your political perspective. Therefore in a political context, coffee is a metaphor for the problematic of Balkan identity and nationalisms.

I hope that this article serves as a delineation of the issues I wish to address in this column. I will finish off this short introduction with a Korean proverb I often like to quote as a toast to the culture of food: "the deeper the culture the tastier the food."

Ivo

Thursday, October 23, 2008

The Great Saint Louis Donut Hunt: Breakfast of Champions

Donuts or Diabetic Shock?

I woke up to a fine gray misty rain, which soon turned into a steady, driving downpour.   With great difficulty I emerged from the warm cocoon of my bed and stumbled downstairs through the frigid house to put on a pot of coffee, wishing that the radiators were on.  It should have felt like Christmas morning - I had been looking forward to my great donut tasting for a long time and I knew that I would have to get over this morning hump and look past the rain.  Last week I had arranged for an informal tasting panel of Washington University medical students to test the strengths and weaknesses of the donuts I planned on bringing in.    With my route established (see map of the Great Donut Triangle below) and map in hand, I set forth with a mug of coffee and a growling stomach at about 9:15am.  Note that in donut time, this is the equivalent of waking up at noon.  I figured since I was unable to have a traveling tasting panel to experience the luxury of hot donuts, that a few hours would not make a big difference.

Before I write further, I want to thank all of the lovely people who helped me, most of whom were the owners of the establishments I visited.  These bakers work hard, love what they do, and are unanimously enthusiastic about the products they create each day.  I also want to thank all of the owners who refused to take any pay for their donuts, making this venture less costly and allowing us to taste a wide variety of specialties.

Our first stop: Lamar's Donuts on Brentwood Blvd.   Lamar's, headquartered in Nebraska, was the only donut chain we tried.  Set up like a coffee shop/ café I sauntered to the counter and was helped promptly; the display was attractive and the donuts looked fresh.  The baking is done offsite (on Olive Blvd.) and thus, unfortunately, the store did not smell incredible as I had hoped.  Instead it smelled of coffee (and so there were no complaints).   The employee behind the counter was happy to serve me and proudly claimed that Lamar's donuts were "bigger and better" than other places.

The display case at Lamar's.

The second stop was the Donut Drive-In on Chippewa. The employees at the Drive-In were friendly and the store, which was claustrophobically packed with to-go boxes and baking supplies, smelled great. "Tender loving care" makes the best donut, claim the women behind the counter who let me take a quick snapshot before I made out with  glazed and buttermilk donuts, as well as an apple fritter.

Pay no attention to the women behind the counter.

The house that donuts built.

As I got back into the car, the skies opened up.  While I was happy to be dry and warm, I was out of coffee, starved, and feeling cranky.   The car smelled good but I didn't dare break into any of my loot.  After all, I had only made it to two of eight planned stops and had 6 donuts to show for it.  I wasn't going to break down and sneak a taste and I certainly wasn't going to eat the unappealing banana, which I had brought with me, thinking that I should eat some fruit to counteract all the lard and sugar I was going to consume in the forthcoming hours.  I continued south to my next stop, the St. Louis Hills Donut Shop.  Momentarily lost and turned around, I was happy to spot the green shack of deliciousness.  

At this point, I have to admit, it was already late for donuts and this establishment was set to close in 2 hours and had been open since 5am.  The baking certainly had been done and the owners were probably ready to head home and rest up before returning later in the night.  The owner, who was very nice, testified to the hard work that it takes to making a good donut.  It was a homey place and I made out with a cheese flip, a glazed donut and a buttermilk donut.

Big Green.

I continued my trek to the southern-most point on my itinerary, the Donut Stop, which was a good distance from downtown, on the outskirts of Jefferson Barracks.  The store was big, smelled great and the owners were still hard at work keeping the display cases fully stocked.   Serving the community's donut needs for the past 55 years, the present owners believed that attention to detail and strong relationships with their clientele proved to be the key to their long-standing success.  I left with a box stuffed with donuts of every variety.  Luckily there were two plain glazed and I wolfed one down in the car.  Not bad...

Donut lighthouse on a gray day.

The Donut Stop family.

I began to head north along Broadway, which was a great drive taking me past an interesting stretch of storefronts, all of which looked like they could have enormous potential in the urban renewal of my dreams.   Sadly, Broadway runs along a terrible strip of the Mississippi river, replete with heavy industry and a sewage treatment facility.  Pharaoh's Donuts was my next intended stop but I had difficulty finding the store.   Time was tight and I was hurrying to meet my 1pm deadline. 

Soulard Market's stall #115 was next on the list, featuring a unique local donut experience; unfortunately, I discovered that Mini Donut, LLC. was closed as they only operate on the weekends. They serve, if I recall correctly, only cake donuts, which come either powdered or plain and are made fresh from a rickety donut-making contraption.  I didn't have time to linger, or get a sausage in the market, so I cut across 7th street and Broadway to John Donut.

Homey and warm.

Disappointed that he was out of the plain glazed donuts, John, the owner, loaded me up with a nice variety of the donuts he had left.  The 26 year old storefront served breakfast and snacks to a wide range of loyal clientele.  The donuts are made nightly from high quality ingredients and stuffed with home made custards and jellies.  John believes that the store's consistency is what sets them apart from other establishments.

Not much was left after a successful morning.

While I wanted to linger over a cup of coffee and some breakfast, I had to move on to my final stop, World's Fair Donuts.

Meet me in St. Louie, Louie...

World's Fair on, open for 32 years, a wonderful throwback to a bygone era.  The woman working the counter had a terrific bee-hive and the bakery somehow reminded me of the Eat-Rite Diner on Chouteau.  Two bakers prepared fillings and plain doughnuts behind the counter and were friendly when I asked to take some photographs.  Old timers sipped coffee and traded stories and, presumably, had just polished off breakfast.  Certainly things were all-right at this shop and there was a comfortable vibe to it.  Maybe it was because it felt like both the establishment and the employees had been frozen in time, a part of south St. Louis that resisted, even scorned change.  When I offered to give this website's address the woman serving me told me that she didn't own a computer and that she laughed that she relied on snail mail.   This was not so surprising but definitely added World Fair's charm.  Fruit top donuts, apple fritters, and plain glazed are the specialties here and I was sent off with a nice variety.

Working hard or hardly working?

Loaded with donuts I drove back north to Barnes Hospital to meet my panel, which was looking forward to a little bit of a pick-me up.  The below photograph shows our loot with third-year student Laura Billadello eagerly cutting into a cake donut before the tasting.  I was so hungry at this point and I was in absolute diabetic shock after the tasting that I neglected to take additional photographs of the tasting and the mass of white-coats that flocked to the free food like moths to light.

Did somebody say free?

So the tasting looks less extravagant than it really was.  It was unfortunately difficult to really spread out without a long table and since I don't have something like a conference room readily available, we had to make do.  In the end we had 6 donut stores representing.  We luckily made a few tasting categories in order to objectively look at which donuts were worthwhile.  The first category was the plain glazed.  The plain glazed donut is the unanimous workhorse of the donut world.  Judge a person not by the color of his donut shop, but by the quality of his/her glazed.  Sadly, John Donut was disqualified from the running in this first category since they had sold out of their plain glazed.  Theoretically this would make them the automatic winner since they were good enough to completely sell out, but this would not be fair to our other contenders.  We looked at flavor (obviously), mouthfeel, and appearance as the main criteria for judgment.

The rankings were objective decisions and the panel was generally unanimous with their conclusions.  In the category of plain glazed donuts the first place went to the Donut Stop.  These donuts were exceptional, slightly crisp but soft and light on the inside.  They had a slight vanilla flavor to them and were exceptionally good.  They were not overly greasy either - I could have eaten a ton of these things.  Donut Drive-In clinched second place but their flavor just could not match those of the Donut Stop.  St. Louis Hills had a very nice donut - slightly smaller than the others and was a solidly delicious pastry.  It unfortunately lacked the pizzaz that the other two had but nonetheless was very good.  World's Fair, unfortunately did not fair so well.  The donut was super-saturated with grease (lard, to be exact) to the extent that it ruined its flavor.  The texture was good but maybe they should replace their frying medium.  Finally Lamar's proved that bigger is not necessarily better.  The donut was light but had a bread-like quality to it.  The flavor was not there and it could not hold its own.

The next category consisted of Apple Fritters.  We had apple fritters from 3 shops.  John Donut's was laden with fresh-tasting fruit and was absolutely phenomenal.  The balance of fruit, cinnamon, icing, and dough was perfect and was a unanimous favorite in the tasting.  Donut Drive-In's apple fritter was similar but did not taste as fresh.  I don't know if they use canned or fresh filling but clearly the secret is in the fruit.  Finally World's Fair could not hold up against the other two.  The fritter was completely coated with icing which made the pastry overly-cloying.  

Since we had a large variety of donuts and focused so much on the plain glazed, we were unable to compare donuts in all the categories.  John Donut and Donut Stop both had great custards and jellies as well as cake donuts.  John Donut received enormous style points as their selection looked particularly refined - their cake donut was also absolutely terrific.

All in all we had a very successful tasting with eight medical students stuffing their faces.

Looking back on the tasting and subsequent need for dialysis, I couldn't help but feel that more could have been done.  St. Louis is a city with many hidden gems and many locally owned stores worth exploring.  Obviously I would have liked to have been able to taste all of the listed stores but a huge time and effort went into even this small tasting.  I will continue tasting new places and will hopefully add a few more places as I continue to explore.

These hard working families have kept donut giants like Duncan Donuts and Krispee Kreme at bay, proving that in a fiercely competitive market, the best donuts are the ones that receive the most attention and care; baking requires a certain amount of love as well as respect for your product.  Hopefully, with the economy shifting towards a serious recession we will see the re-emergence of the donut as people turn to comfort foods in these times of uncertainty.

No matter what happens, there's something comforting knowing that you can easily find a good donut and a cup of coffee. 

Sunday, October 19, 2008

The Great Saint Louis Donut Hunt

Before I start I begin my long awaited grand donut review, I will need to address what many of you may notice as the difference in spelling between donut and doughnut. According to the Oxford English Dictionary both are valid spellings although doughnut appears to be the "correct" or high-brow spelling for this delicious treat. And while the Greater St. Louis Yellow pages directs you to "doughnut" I prefer to use the americanized spelling. St. Louis ain't no highbrow place and we don't need any of those fancy ough words to prove how good our tasty cakes are.

Donuts were introduced to the Americas by the Dutch in the 17th century, specifically to what is now New York. These deep-fried dough cakes were called olykoeks (literally oil (olie) and cake (koek)).

Knowing where to start in this hunt was not too difficult as many donut palaces, drive-ins, and stops seem to be ubiquitous and the lull of the hot, sweet, fresh, and greasy delicacy is why I am here. The yellow pages list 26 independently owned establishments that each purvey their own deep-fried bites of heaven... or hell. I have selected 8 stores, mostly by name and proximity, in order to provide you with a guide the next time you're ready for a caloric breakfast splurge.

Below is a map of the donut establishments that have been put under our closest scrutiny:
(click on the pushpins to see the names and addresses of the donut shops).

View Larger Map

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Mirror Mirror on the Wall

OK so I have been pondering the future of this enterprise and mulling over exactly what should be the focus of this blog/ future website. I may be wrong but it seems to me that most "blogs" on St. Louis food focus on reviews that are neither exciting nor all that well written. A full review is only possible after dining at a restaurant several times - I believe 4 times is standard for food criticism. It takes a few times to decide if a restaurant is great, which gets to be both expensive and time consuming and to be honest, not all that interesting if you're just musing over some sort of meat, starch vegetable combination that was most likely delicious but neither exciting nor innovative. I think what I'm trying to say is that I think that most of the big name restaurants in St. Louis (most but not all) churn out very tasty dishes that are comfortable. Trends in general take a long time to break through to St. Louis (if they manage to do so at all is sometimes a miracle) but that is also what is so great about this city. We have the potential to spark great things but the unfortunate reality is that St. Louisans are not always receptive to the cutting edge. This is nothing new. We sealed our fate with cotton and the Mississippi and paid the price. Chicago got the skyscrapers and we got a stainless steel arch. I'm saying I'll take it.

Stay tuned for next week's first real post on... The Great Donut Hunt!

Friday, October 17, 2008

It's.... ALIVE!

OK so this is the first, original post for the newest St. Louis food blog covering eats in and around the St. Louis metro area. We will be featuring original reviews, interviews, information, ratings, recipes, and articles related to food. As we get our writing staff together, we will create a more focused vision on what we think should be going into your bellies!

St. Louis has been finally heating up in the recent years and while still no culinary destination, it's gotten better for all of us! Things change and that's why we're here!

Keep tuned as we start churning out articles and eventually launch our own dedicated website.

Keep eating!

Max